A Galaxy of Redemption
By: Anthony Zangrillo
After months of anticipation and excitement, the rebirth of Star Wars has arrived. Director J.J. Abrams helms a great film that introduces an array of interesting characters that fully redeems the franchise from the missteps of the dreaded prequels. From monumental space battles, heinous villains, courageous heroes, and interesting locales, the first half of this movie fully encapsulates the greatest aspects of this epic series. Every early twist and turn brings new and unexpected elements to the film leaving audiences salivating for more. However, as the film’s scope naturally widens, it begins to lose its initial nostalgic driven charm. Somehow, the movie devolves to a patched together plot of the original trilogy aiming to match prior story elements beat for beat. Furthermore, the creative team elects to tell us about past, mysterious events rather than having audiences reach their own conclusions. As a result, the growth of certain characters is severely stunted and the film as a whole suffers.
SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers are present throughout this review!
Obviously, this film is a massive accomplishment for the Star Wars universe. After a trilogy that diluted the mastery of George Lucas’ original films, The Force Awakens takes an expected leap in the right direction. Even the opening crawl has remedied the lackluster narrative of politics and taxes. Here, exclamation points and memorable names litter the textual beginning of this film. Indeed, the victory on Endor seems hollow as the war continues to rage on among the stars. The enemies have changed their appearance, yet their tactics remain coldly calculated.
In an interesting move, the film showcases the full savagery of military might. The First Order is every bit as cruel as the mighty Galactic Empire of old. Even the first shot of the film visually captures the control sought by the malevolent First Order. Their power embodies the shadow of a star destroyer suffocating the light out of planets. Furthermore, this time, the audience gets to witness their atrocities against innocent lives. With a heartless, mechanical approach, the indoctrinated from birth Stormtrooper grunts lay siege to a village on Jakkuu. Witnessing the utter depravity on display, Finn (John Boyega), a blood stained trooper on his first mission, begins to tremble and question the motivations of his superiors. The notion of following a traitorous soldier attempting to flee the evil around him makes for a great premise that allows one of our protagonists to gather the audience’s interest. The stark appearance of a helmet christened by the blood of another soldier’s dying hand was a stellar way to introduce this character.
This manic and oppressive opening is a grand entrance for the mysterious dark user of the force Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Flanked by soldiers of the First Order, Ren slowly approaches an unknown character and cuts him down in a swift motion of cruelty. Yet this scene is undercut by obscure references that will likely confuse audiences. This continues the tradition of obnoxiously advertising expanded universe materials. Many times, the movie decides to alleviate the film from having to fill in all the details of a scene. While a decade from now, the fan community may rejoice with the great amount of secrets that were hidden within this film, these choices sully the current enjoyment of the movie. This cinema sin is a symptom of the franchise driven economy of the current movie making enterprise, yet The Force Awakens only magnifies this awful trend.
In addition, this scene introduces us to the cocky, yet courageous Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac), expert pilot of the Resistance. Po resembles a mix of Han Solo’s charm and Luke Skywalker’s selflessness. Po plays an important role early on, thriving in a buddy relationship with Finn. This interplay grounds these heroic figures. Bewilderingly, Po drops out of the film, only returning to lead an X-wing attack on the planet-wide death star. However, when Po bravely attacks Kylo, Ren shockingly halts the blaster fire with the power of the force. After witnessing all of this loss and tragedy, Po maintains his defiant quips against this servant of evil. Yet Ren shrinks in face of this utter disrespect. Rather than mimicking the uncompromising will of Darth Vader, Kylo orders the stormtroopers to prepare the Resistance fighter for a torture sequence. This began to confirm suspicions about the questionable strength of the great Kylo Ren. However, the film redeems Ren by making him a surgeon of fear, manipulating the force against his captives in order to extract precious information that will lead him to his treasured objective, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. This new appearance of the force is one of the greatest strengths of the movie. The force is given its own aura and vibe throughout the film. It is not merely an invisible power. The currents of this strong tool can be seen and felt throughout the scenes. Even though Kylo is not strong enough to unleash the ferocious force lightning ability, Kylo exhibits a vice grip over the force in a violent and uncontrolled way.
The main protagonist of the film is a scavenger of Jakku, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Undoubtedly, Rey is the most developed protagonist bearing a more interesting background than the farm boy Luke Skywalker of Tatooine. With no last name or background, Rey will obviously evolve throughout the series. Tons of questions surround this character and little will be answered by the time the credits roll. It is shocking to learn that Rey is truly alone on Jakku, fending for herself, barely surviving on the graveyard planet. Remnants of a prior war haunt the landscape as Rey salvages parts from the inner sanctum of an imperial star destroyer. Soon after the audience’s introduction to Rey, her life becomes more complicated, as she encounters a fugitive BB-8 protocol droid and eventually the traitorous Finn.
Rest assured, BB-8 never attains an annoying level of entertainment. The droid is as memorable as R2-D2 and C-3PO. In fact, BB-8 provides just the right amount of comic relief for this epic space story. The little droid’s charismatic features embody him with his own unique personality. Unfortunately, Finn’s character development slows to a halt, as he lies about his situation to form a temporary partnership with Rey. While the trio evade incoming tie fighter blaster fire, they hijack the Millennium Falcon ship and engage in a visually astonishing chase scene that is arguably the best scene of the film. Eventually, the crew encounter the legendary ship’s original owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca. This culminates in another great set piece, invoking the thrilling intensity of the Alien franchise, as a pair of space creature stalk the inhabitants of the ship. The grizzled old man Solo brings a new dynamic to the character with the same smuggler charm. Solo has suffered a lifetime of emotional pain and in response, he has retreated to his prior life of illicit activities. Still, Ford seems to have a great time revisiting this character as evidenced by a fun scene, where Solo borrows Chewbacca’s bow-caster in the heat of battle to exterminate some Stormtrooper scum.
Unfortunately, the film loses a lot of its energy as soon as Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is introduced. While the cantina scene attempts to replicate the famous Mos Eisley scene, the whole atmosphere seems a little forced. It is utterly perplexing to witness the characters simply stride into the public area with the fugitive droid, effectively alerting both the Resistance and First Order to their presence. Maz Kanata is totally under utilized in this entry of the series. Rumors circulated that Lupita’s role was originally much longer but her scenes did not tonally work within the film. Witnessing the final product, it is easy to surmise the validity of these rumors. Although her joking affection for the Wookie warrior was a nice addition of comic relief for the film.
However, one of the most interesting scenes in the film revolve around a vision by Rey. A slow and tense shot builds up the suspense of Rey finding Luke’s old lightsaber. This scene’s introduction culminates in the iconic Darth Vader breathing. This premonition hints at the backstories of some major characters while including a bevy of references for fans to dissect. Yet as Rey’s story progresses, Finn devolves into a caricature of a coward, who turns his back on his new friends, albeit for a mere second. Falling into the reluctant hero trope, the creative team misses an opportunity to further round out Finn’s already complex background. At the same time, Finn’s light saber scenes are a surprise considering his lack of force abilities.
Following a few action scenes, the stage for a final confrontation between the Resistance and First Order comes to fruition. In these moments, it becomes apparent that the giant scale of this planetary weapon effectively diminishes the intensity of this space battle. The film explicitly compares the size of the two weapons, showing how dire the conflict is in this movie. Yet the film constantly switches between a ground and space offensive, effectively diluting the excitement of this endeavor, when compared to the iconic and original trench run.
On a side note, Kylo Ren is the most fascinating character of this new saga. Characters around him respect his presence and constantly discuss his great power and raw ability. Yet behind the ornate mask and Sith robes, Kylo is a petulant child constantly struggling with the light and dark side of the force. The major gripe with the Darth Vader fanatic revolves around confusing flashbacks with little context. Telling the audience about family connections has an effect, but showing the audience their relationships would have an extraordinary impact. Yet the movie’s constant mystique and subtle references is a welcome change from the clichéd Lucas reveals. The big reveal of Han Solo and General Leia as Ren’s parents is mentioned off-handedly, rather than in the climax of the film. Getting this huge fact out of the way early enables audiences to digest the information, while allowing certain characters to reflect on the past tragedies that have befallen their family.
The most important scene of this film is the final farewell to Han Solo. Everyone knew Han Solo would not make it through this film, but no one wanted to believe it. Rather than being a casualty of a drawn out conflict, Solo’s death is masterfully handled. Solo slowly approaches his son Kylo Ren, calling him by his real name Ben. With Rey, Finn, and Chewbacca watching from a far, Han is prepared to risk his life in order to bring Kylo back to the light side of the force. The scene slowly unfolds with Kylo’s conflicted demeanor. Undoubtedly, this is Solo’s final moment, but Kylo’s indecisive manner will allow audiences to question the ensuing event. In a symbolic and the heartless manner, Kylo extinguishes any semblance of the light in his heart by murdering his own father. This milestone will shock some audiences, yet the film is far from finished.
Following this moment, the film’s final lightsaber duels greatly weaken the Kylo Ren character. Even though this dark force wielder gets shot by Chewbacca before the battle, Ren seems to totally ignore the force in his conflicts. While the primal image of Kylo repeatedly beating on his own chest to incite his own anger adds an inanity driven dimension to the character, his dueling abilities are rather embarrassing. Ren barely loses to the novice Finn and is ultimately defeated by the natural force behemoth Rey. The utter defeat Kylo suffers greatly diminishes him as a threatening force, as Rey just discovered her force ability mere hours before their duel. There is hope that the next installment will rectify this situation, but it appears the film does not sufficiently build up Kylo as a malevolent force in his own actions. Rather the screenplay seems intent on explaining Kylo’s strength, rather than exhibiting it. On the other hand, this battle does wonders for Rey’s character as her force savant abilities, seem to rival the gifted Anakin Skywalker.
Remaining on the dark side of the force, General Huxley (Domhnhall Gleeson) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) portray an interesting dynamic within the treacherous ranks of the First Order. Huxley reports directly to Snoke and will often clash with Ren. Similar to Moffs of the Empire, the divide between military evil and dark wizards present an interesting conflict to explore. Huxley’s best scene is a rhetoric rousing speech culminating in a planet wide explosion of the galaxy’s New Republic. On a side note, this attack has a greater impact than the loss of Alderaan, because a few shots of the cataclysmic destruction on the surface of the planet will leave a lasting impact on audiences. However, so far, Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor. He does not appear to have the same vice-grip control over his subordinates. Presumed by audiences to be a master of the dark side, he appears to have a more forgiving persona than his sinister predecessor. While the CGI model is impressive, only the future will tell if Snoke is a real, ominous threat. Finally, Captian Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is an utter disappointment. At least General Grievous got to have a menacing introduction to Star Wars lore and fought a Jedi Master to the bitter end. Phasma is given almost nothing to do in this film, and it is abundantly clear she is in this film in order to sell action figures.
Throughout the entire film, a great level of detail and care has been taken to make every planet feel inhabited and thriving. Rather than overtly complex and fake computer graphics, JJ’s use of practical effects harkens back to the realistic style of a galaxy far, far away. The denizens of Jakku and the customers of the cantina display interesting costumes and each can arguably receive their own fascinating backstory in Star Wars lore. This is how outside material should play a role. It should not matter to the essential storyline of the film. Rather, it plays a minimal role in further developing the world and universe that the film’s characters inhabit. Furthermore, the score is excellent, giving each character a distinctive background, while also recalling previous, iconic themes in specific instances. In addition, the film is replete with memorable easter eggs lurking in the shadows of certain shots. While given a more expanded role than a cameo, Carrie Fisher has a successful return to the Princess Leia character exploring her new role as a General for the Resistance. Unfortunately, it seems that her inclusion merely services the impact of Kylo’s betrayal and Han’s death. Finally, the ending of the movie works perfectly in the episodic world of Star Wars, and I can’t wait to see the real return of Luke Skywalker.
In conclusion, this movie overtly mimics A New Hope to its own detriment. While it is a thoroughly, enjoyable adventure, the movie’s safe path prevents the film from finding its own voice in the galaxy. Still, this movie did exactly what it needed to achieve in order to further the Star Wars legacy. This great introduction will allow the later entries to take more calculated risks, possibly maintaining that initial sense of wonder and awe for an entire film in the future.
May the Force Be with You!